Autism Awareness Month: A Chance to Redefine Disability

Last updated on April 25th, 2018 at 10:11 am

April is Autism Awareness Month. For those of us in the special needs trenches this might seem odd because if autism has impacted your life you are always aware of it every minute of every day. The reality is that many people have no idea what autism truly is. They might watch The Good Doctor or Sesame Street, and while it is terrific that autism and other conditions are being represented in mainstream media often these portrayals are flawed or fail to paint the complete picture.

Autism Society defines autism spectrum disorder as a complex developmental disability that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. Dr. Stephen Shore famously said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The spectrum of autism ranges from people with savant skills to people who are nonverbal and enjoy fecal smearing.

Just as the symptoms and challenges vary from person to person, language preferences are also a point of contention. Many people believe in the “person-first” theory of communication, where the individual is considered before their diagnosis because the person is much more than their condition. The best way I heard it explained is that if you had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer you would not refer to them as “my cancerous friend.” You would say “my friend, who has cancer.” So the student is not a special needs child, they are a child with special needs.

Yet some people disagree. Temple Grandin doesn’t mind being called autistic instead of a person with autism. She treasures her autism because it is what makes her mind work the way it does. She claims that in many ways it does define her and she is proud of it.

Now there are movements to alter more phrases and words. Before you describe someone as “suffering with autism” try to observe them first. Are they really suffering, or are they happy and productive in their own way? There is a campaign to “spread the word to end the word” for the “r-word” (retard). Many adults with special needs would prefer that you simply call them disabled because in fact, that is the truth. Another root definition of “dis” means apart or in two ways, so really saying someone is disabled is really another way of saying that they do things differently or in another way.

And really, don’t we all have special needs? I need to have chocolate. My mother needs to have coffee with every freakin’ meal. My son needs to wear socks in the pool. Whatever. These are little things we need to help us get through our daily lives.

So, this April be aware of autism in all of its manifestations and try out some new ways of talking about – and talking to – people with disabilities.

About the Author

Rosie Reeves is a writer and mother of three; including one with special needs. She works side-by-side with her daughter’s therapists, teachers and doctors. Rosie has also served as the Los Angeles Special Needs Kids Examiner and serves as a contributor on the Yahoo! Contributor Network. She can be reached at rosie327@aol.com.Rosie is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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